Colmcille or Columba – the founder of Durrow. By Brian Lacey

We welcome Brian Lacey this week. He agreed to contribute this blog in advance of his lecture to Offaly History on Wednesday 9 June at 7.30 p.m. via Zoom. You can book a place via info@offalyhistory.com. Congratulations on his new book on Adomnán , the great biographer of Colmcille.

The Patron or Pattern Day at Durrow on 9 June 2014

This is the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Colmcille (the name he is usually known by in Irish) or Columba (name in Latin).  In the Middle Ages Colmcille was honoured as one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with Brigid and Patrick. Patrick, of course, was not Irish but British, and it is an open question as to whether Brigid really existed as a person at all, or if her legendary character is just the Christianisation of stories about a pagan goddess. While there are many things we don’t know or are unsure about Colmcille, he was definitely a real Irish person who lived for most of the sixth century.

His fame however was not confined to Ireland. Somewhat akin to the Joycean and Yeatsean literary ‘industries’, vast amounts have been written about Colmcille since his death while his name has also been honoured in works of art, placenames, dedications etc. The resulting Colmcille is a cultural and social construction (not in itself unusual in relation to individuals who are honoured as ‘saints’) which is only partly based on ‘history’. In fact, when it is all boiled down, we actually know very little about the original person. But the fact that we know anything at all about someone who lived so long ago is itself rare and extraordinary, and a testament both to his own personality and to those who worked to perpetuate his memory. 

Without doubt, the ‘memory’ we have of him has been inflated in legends, folklore, music and art, but at the core of all this was a real sixth-century human individual whose actual legacy – most certainly in the achievements of his followers – was enormous. For instance, although Colmcille is credited with the foundation of many monasteries in Ireland – places like Derry, Drumcliff (Co. Sligo) and Kells (Co. Meath) – in fact Durrow is the only such foundation for which we have definite, near contemporary evidence.

The 1730s church at Durrow on the site of the medieval building with the classical urns and doorcase. The bread tablets were stolen. The De Renzi memorial inside the church has been moved outside. The cross on the east gable was moved to the National Museum.

Colmcille is honoured as a ‘saint’, that is as an important figure in the history of Christianity in these islands. But his significance – and that of the monastic ‘institution’ he founded – is much more.  There is a huge literary and artistic inheritance – including various seminal connections to the history of the Irish language, to Latin learning, and to the technology of writing, painting and sculpture.  The Columban communities were active in various forms of what we would now call science and scholarship, as well as politics, jurisprudence and diplomacy, as well as all aspects of religious scholarship. To him also, or at least to his monasteries, can be attributed the ‘invention’ of Irish (and Scottish) ‘history’, as opposed to the understanding of the past based on myth and legend. In fact, there were few areas of life in their own time where he and the monks who followed him were not actively involved as innovators.

The High Cross was moved inside the church about 2004.

His personal involvements were in Ireland and Scotland while his followers extended their work to northern England. Ultimately his reputation spread to continental Europe through the circulation of literature about him and the spread of his cult. In many parts of the wider world where (especially) Scottish and Irish emigrants and missionaries worked in modern times, his name is still honoured in the dedications of churches, schools and cultural institutions.

Not unusually for an early medieval figure, there are some problems about his precise dates. Until lately his birth was understood to have occurred in 521. Recent research however has modified that to 520. There was of course nothing resembling birth certificates in those times, but very longstanding tradition attributed his actual birthday to 7 December. As a result, the 1500th anniversary of his birth is being commemorated from 7 December 2020 to 7 December 2021.

The High Cross, dating to about 850 AD now inside the church in all its splendour. The 18th cent. pews were retained. The church can be visited every day but access is not signposted at the main road due to traffic concerns. Thanks to Paul Moore for this picture.

There are lots of (non-historical) folkloric stories and monuments relating to Colmcille, all over Ireland and Scotland – everyone wanted a bit of him!  Even the medieval texts can’t be accepted at face value. Some of the most famous and entertaining stories about him – or achievements attributed to him – are evidently non-historical and derive from later religious and secular political events and a desire by his devotees to enlarge his reputation and fame.

There are three medieval Lives written about him: Adomnán’s c.700 in Latin written on Iona (possibly to mark the 100th anniversary of his death): the Middle Irish Life in Irish written in Derry c.1150; and Manus Ó Domnaill’s Betha Colaimcille composed at or near Lifford in Donegal in 1532.  It must be understood that medieval Lives of saints (hagiography) are not biographies in our modern sense – they are not concerned with the literal truth in so far as it can be known. They are designed instead to inflate the holy reputation of their subject and, shamelessly, they include every miracle and wonder story that is thought relevant – often recycling such stories from the Lives of other (more famous) saints or in some cases from the Bible itself. Colmcille’s Lives are definitely of this type. That doesn’t mean that the authors were dishonest; it was just that they thought that their saint must have been capable of such wonders if other great saints were.  Nothing was lost in the telling of those tales and, of course, Irish culture honoured story-telling. So as time went by the stories grew and got more outrageous and – this was the point – even more entertaining. Indeed, Colmcille himself was honoured in a way as a ‘patron’ of story-telling and story-tellers. In legend, he famously defended the poets as story-tellers, citing in evidence the fact that God (no less) ‘bought’ the stories (in fact the psalms) of king David. 

What all this means is that, as we have very few ‘facts’ about the real historical person, but what we have is sufficient to prove his seminal importance in our history and that we are right to commemorate him, no matter what our religious beliefs.

The Flight into Egypt – a panel from Durrow High Cross.

Dr Brian Lacey is a historian and archaeologist specialising mainly in the early medieval period in Cos Donegal and Derry. His interdisciplinary PhD (1999) dealt with the heritage of St Colum Cille. He lectured at Magee College, Derry, (1974-86) and later set up Derry’s Heritage and Museum Service having directed a series of salvage excavations at ‘Troubles’ bomb-sites in the city. He led the pioneering archaeological survey of Co. Donegal (1980-3) and (1998-2012) headed the Discovery Programme, an institute based in Dublin for advanced research in Irish archaeology. He is the author of many research papers and about 15 books, including St Columba: His Life and Legacy, Manus O Donnell: Life of Colum Cille (ed.), and Medieval and monastic Derry: sixth century to 1600. A recent edited book dealt with what happened in Derry during the Easter Rising of 1916. His latest book Adomnán, Adhamhnán, Eunan: the life and afterlife of a Donegal saint will be published on 28 May 2021 and is available from Offaly History shop, Bury Quay for €19.95.

Pics and captions: Offaly History

Forthcoming blogs will include Kinnitty in 1821; the moving bog and Clara; Croghan Hill; Two gentlemen of Clara – Quinn and Mericier; Columb Kelly, Charleville estate, and more on the placenames of Ballinagar. If you would like to contribute an article contact us at info@offalyhistory.com. In the meantime like our blog to have it on your desk each week.